Proposal Components



A proposal can have various components depending on the sponsor and solicitation requirements. A solicitation is also known as a call for proposals, request for proposals, or funding opportunity. Each agency and even specific programs within an agency may require components that are specific to a funding opportunity.

Basic Components

What follows is a brief description of the typical components a sponsor may require.

Cover Sheet/Face page

Many application packages contain a face page or cover sheet. 

  • Summarizes key information for the sponsor such as: the name of the PI, the period of performance, the title of the proposal, the title of the funding agency, the funds requested and key contacts
  • Indicates Stanford endorsement of the proposal, typically through a signature block 

Table of Contents

Not all proposals require a table of contents (or their system generates one so you don’t have to) but for those that do, you should list each section of the proposal and associated page numbers.

Abstract or Project Summary

It frames the proposal, and in many instances determines where it will to be sent for review. Since it is a summary of major points it must be able to stand-alone. Although the abstract appears at the beginning of the proposal it is usually written last.

  • Usually limited to 200-400 words
  • Concisely describes the aims and procedures of the proposed project
  • Written in lay terms
  • May be used for press releases
  • Often placed in a database to indicate to taxpayers how tax dollars were used

Project Description/Research Plan/Statement of Work

The research plan describes:

  • the proposed research
  • the impact of the project as proposed
  • the research methodology 
  • the project’s relationship to the sponsor’s purpose and goals

Keep the reviewers in mind. Most proposals go through a preliminary review to ensure that your proposal is complete and that it adheres to all format requirements (many sponsors demand strict adherence to page limits for the narrative). Write and organize your application so the reviewer can readily grasp and explain what you are proposing and advocate for your application.

Biographical Sketch

This section is required for key personnel.  Each agency has its own guidelines, which are updated at least once a year, with very specific instructions of what information should be provided and explicit page limitations. The most frequently used bio sketches are for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NSF has a dedicated page to provide guidance for creating a bio sketch (including step-by-step videos and FAQs). For NIH proposals, review their specific guidance, check the FAQs and look at their sample bio sketches.

Bibliography and References Cited

Provide a bibliography of all references cited in the research plan. Different sponsors have different formats. Citations for literature should be complete. Read the application instructions for this section carefully.

Budget and Budget Justification

The budget contains estimated costs for the entire proposal period. Project costs must be allowable, allocable, reasonable, and consistent. Budget Basics provides an in-depth overview of creating a budget. The budget is generally divided into the following categories: Total Direct Costs, Modified Total Direct Costs, and Indirect Costs.

The National Institute of Health uses 2 different formats for budget submission depending on the total direct costs requested and the activity code used. See NIH A Guided Tour for more information.

Pay special attention to the justification for clerical and administrative expenses, or for general-purpose (non-scientific) equipment. Stanford policy requires a budget justification for all administrative expenses See RPH: 15.4 Charging for Administrative and Technical Expenses.

All expenses should be justified. If your budget includes a subaward to another institution, make sure to include their budget and budget justification as well.

The best strategy is to request a reasonable amount of money to do the work.

  • Reviewers look for reasonable costs and will judge whether your request is justified by your aims and methods.
  • Reviewers will consider the “person months” you've listed for each of the senior/key personnel and will judge whether the figures are in sync with reviewer’s expectations, based on the research proposed.
  • Significant over- or under-estimating suggests you may not understand the scope of the work.
  • Despite popular myth, proposing a cost-sharing (matching) arrangement where you only request that the sponsor support some of the funding while your organization funds the remainder does not normally impact the evaluation of your proposal. Only a few select programs require cost-sharing, and these programs will address cost-sharing in the FOA.
  • NSF prohibits cost sharing unless explicitly stated in the FOA.

Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources 

The sponsor may require a separate description that addresses the attributes of the facilities and available equipment that will be used to support the project. It is an opportunity to promote the research environment laboratories, other facilities, equipment, and office space at Stanford. Make sure that the space proposed for your project is approved for that use by the facilities manager in your department/school. 

Key Personnel

List all senior or key personnel and their roles.  These individuals are vital to the technical execution of the project. Depending on the sponsor, consultants and subrecipients must be included. Attach Curriculum Vitae or Biographical Sketches for each to establish competency. Some sponsors, e.g.., NSF, limit CVs to two pages.

Current and Pending Support

Most sponsors ask for a list of all other sources of support for ongoing projects, as well as pending support from proposals submitted elsewhere. This information is available from SeRA system. List the other projects requiring a portion of PI or senior personnel time. Include:

  • Project title, sponsor
  • Period of performance
  • Percentage of effort, amount of award (or amount requested). 

Some agencies require the Current and Pending Support to be submitted not at proposal submission time but prior to making an award. This is called Just In Time Information (JIT).  The National Institutes of Health uses JIT for the submission of Current and Pending Support.


Some sponsors prohibit or require prior approval to submit appendices. The appendix may not be used to circumvent the page limitations of the Research Plan. Essential information should be included within the body of the application. The appendices should contain supportive or supplemental information such as the following.

  • Tables
  • Charts
  • Photographs
  • Articles

Federal Assurance and Certifications (Institutional Rep completes)

Federal assurances and certifications must be signed by the Stanford Institutional Official when proposals are submitted. Standard federal assurances include:

  • Certification regarding lobbying
  • Drug-Free workplace
  • Delinquency on federal debt
  • Civil rights
  • Debarment and suspension

Sponsor Checklist

Many sponsors provide proposal checklists. Be sure to complete it and include it in the proposal, if required. The National Institutes of Health requires the checklist to be a component of the proposal.

Minimum Proposal Components

In cases where the sponsor does not require specific proposal components, Stanford requires a SOW (Statement of Work) and an internal budget and a budget justification to be attached to a PDRF.

SOW (Statement of Work)

The statement of work describes the what, why, how, and when of the research project. It shows how the project relates to the sponsor’s purpose and goals. For the proposal to succeed in peer review, it must win over the assigned reviewers. The application has two audiences: a small number who are familiar with the field, and the majority of reviewers who are probably not familiar with the proposed research techniques or field. All reviewers are important because each reviewer gets one vote. The proposal should be written and organized so all the reviewers can readily grasp and explain what is proposed and advocate for the proposal. 

The statement of work should provide a clear description of the work to be undertaken and must include:

  • objectives for the period of the proposed work
  • expected significance of the proposed work
  • relation to longer-term goals of the PI's project
  • relation to the present state of knowledge in the field
  • relation to work in progress by the PI under other support
  • relation to work in progress elsewhere.

The statement of work should outline the general plan of work, including the broad design of activities to be undertaken, and, where appropriate, provide a clear description of experimental methods and procedures.

Proposers should address

  • What they want to do
  • Why they want to do it
  • How they plan to do it
  • How they will know if they succeed
  • What benefits could accrue if the project is successful

The project activities may be based on previously established and/or innovative methods and approaches, but in either case must be well justified. These issues apply to both the technical aspects of the proposal and the way in which the project may make broader contribution.

Brevity will assist reviewers in dealing effectively with proposals. Therefore, many agencies have page limitations on the Project Description.

The Budget and Budget Justification

Develop a detailed internal budget and attach it to the PDRF. An internal budget requires that all the cost components be broken into detail. You will use it to complete the sponsor's budget in the sponsor's format. 

All proposals must contain a budget for each year of support requested, unless a particular program solicitation stipulates otherwise. The amounts for each budget line item requested should be documented and justified in the budget justification. If you are submitting a modular NIH proposal you must follow very specific instructions.

The proposal may request funds so long as the item and amount are considered necessary, reasonable, allocable, and allowable under the applicable cost principles, agency policy, and/or the program solicitation. Amounts and expenses budgeted also must be consistent with Stanford's policies and procedures.

The budget must include the following:

  • Estimated costs for the entire project period broken into Direct and F&A costs
  • Separate budgets for any portion of the work  that is to be done under a subaward
  • Separate budgets for any cost sharing proposed

The best strategy is to request a reasonable amount of money to do the work, not more and not less.

  • Reviewers look for reasonable costs and will judge whether your request is justified by your aims and methods
  • Reviewers will consider the person months you've listed for each of the senior/key personnel and will judge whether the figures are in sync with reviewer expectations, based on the research proposed
  • Significant over or under estimating suggests you may not understand the scope of the work

About the Budget Justification

The budget justification is a brief description of each of the cost categories included in the budget. It helps the potential sponsor understand the thought process behind the costs proposed. It also helps the institutional representative determine the allowability of the expenses proposed.

Stanford policy requires a budget justification for all administrative salaries. Pay special attention to the justification for general purpose (non-scientific) equipment. 

Sponsor Proposal Preparation Guidelines

Before you prepare an application, obtain and thoroughly read the current sponsor guidelines specific to the funding opportunity.

Key Sponsor Proposal Preparation Guidelines

Before you prepare a proposal, study and follow the current specific agency/sponsor guidelines to understand your responsibilities. Proposal Preparation Guidelines for key agencies include:

National Institutes of Health Application Guide

National Science Foundation PAPPG